High Sierra (1941)

“Of all the 14-karat saps! Starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog…”

High Sierra Poster

Synopsis:
Ex-con “Mad Dog” Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) — sprung from prison by an ailing friend (Donald MacBride) — connects with a pair of hoodlums (Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis) and their luckless moll (Ida Lupino), who are collaborating with a hotel clerk (Cornel Wilde) to stage a heist. Along the way, he meets and befriends an impoverished man (Henry Travers) who is traveling to California with his wife (Elisabeth Risdon) and beautiful granddaughter (Joan Leslie). Lupino falls for Bogart while Bogart falls for Leslie, hoping to woo her through paying for an operation to fix her club-foot. Meanwhile, the heist goes awry and “Mad Dog” is on the lam once again with Lupino and a bad-luck mutt known as “Pard”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Raoul Walsh directed and John Huston co-scripted this “gangster classic” — based on a novel by co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett — which allowed Humphrey Bogart to become “a full-fledged leading man”. Peary writes that “Walsh really takes a classic western story and transposes it to the gangster genre”, noting that Walsh later refined the story in his gangster flick White Heat (1948) and remade it as an actual western, Colorado Territory, in 1949. Peary argues (and I agree) that the subplot about Bogart’s friendship with Travers, Risdon, and Leslie — despite allowing “Earle to display his good heart and Bogart to reveal a side of himself that hadn’t been seen yet on film” — “weakens the otherwise tough drama”. Though Bogart’s desire to turn over a new leaf and marry a fresh and “innocent” new girl makes sense on some level, it’s incomprehensible that he believes he can hide, sugarcoat, or excuse his past — especially given how notorious he is across the nation. Meanwhile, why would Leslie happily allow Bogart to take her hand romantically (during a key scene) if she has no interest at all in him “that way”? Other concerning elements of the film include William Best’s caricatured role as a rolling-eyed African-American “assistant” and Henry Hull’s cartoonish “Doc” Banton, whose wig and make-up are distractingly inauthentic.

With that said, there is still much to recommend in this film, which is generally acknowledged as an early example of “gangster noir” (the cinematography by Tony Gaudio is wonderfully atmospheric). According to DVD Savant, it’s notable as the film that “officially marked an end to the five-year ban on sympathetic gangster characters”. Walsh makes excellent use of on-location shooting in Lone Pines, California, and Lupino gives a nuanced and highly empathetic performance as a down-on-her-luck gal desperately in love with clueless Bogart. It’s certainly worth viewing by all film fanatics — and more engaging than its decent but unexceptional western remake.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ida Lupino as Marie
    High Sierra Lupino
  • Humphrey Bogart as “Mad Dog” Earle
    High Sierra Bogart
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
    High Sierra Cinematography3
    High Sierra Cinematography1
    High Sierra Cinematography2
  • Effective live-locale filming in the San Bernadino mountains
    High Sierra On Location

Must See?
Yes, as a dated but historically impactful gangster flick.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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